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July 24, 2015

Do superstars own top performance?

Ian's Morning Musing image I have been somewhat fascinated by the title of a recent blog by David Wexler, one of our SCNetwork members – “Can you win if your employees aren’t superstars?

superstar employeeAs I have thought about that question, it is obvious to us all that our organizations are not full of superstars. Perhaps the next most logical question to pose is whether our organizations know who the superstars truly are. There are countless examples in team sport of players who have excelled in a particular group setting, but have flopped when they have been traded, or pursued free agency and gone somewhere else. There are CEOs who have excelled in one organization, but failed to achieve the same level of success elsewhere. You will recall Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, who was once the golden child of Bill Gates. History will remind us that, at the helm, Ballmer misread the importance of mobile, the power of search and also the cloud. In such examples, one can certainly make the case that the supporting cast had a lot to do with the earlier success.

So who owns top performance – the superstars, or is it actually the organization?

It is possible to find some research that has measured how much a superstar outperforms other employees. Through a combination of skill, passion, drive and energy – in some cases in sports – they produce 20 or 30 times the average. It is conceivable that a similar performance multiple could catapult a business to another level and could certainly make a CEO look spectacularly good. So even though such superstars might be the rare exception, they become an endangered species because of their perceived marketability.

But how do these superstars produce such remarkable performance? Is it based solely on their extraordinary talents? Are organizations sophisticated enough to be able to measure the superstars’ unique contribution versus that of the supporting cast?

Albeit Wexler poses an interesting question, the leverage is surely with the superstars. A 10 per cent lift on a million dollar sales person is significantly more important than a 10 per cent lift on a $100,000 salesperson. Based on research, Herman Aguinis, John F. Mee, Chair of Management at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, says “from receiving a Pulitzer prize to scoring points in the NBA, the consistent finding is that there is a small minority of performers who make a disproportionate contribution in terms of output.”

If such talent is becoming scarcer, then it stands to reason that the term “free agent” is now being used more commonly in our business language. Certainly, in my business life, there are individual contributors who are star performers. In Capital Markets businesses for example, there are traders in different product lines, or investment advisors, who were identified as our “franchise players.” It was imperative that we kept them engaged, supported and rewarded. More intriguingly, I have found that the superstars that lead teams carry knowledge, information, and an array of capabilities – plus they have a captivating ability to attract and energize high quality colleagues, and this separates them from others. In fact, assembling such a team elevates the superstar’s own thinking and the quality of his/her work, which ultimately translates to superior customer relationships.

Just as a yardstick, I polled a number of CHROs in SCNetwork’s peer groups and asked the very unscientific question as to what percentage of superstars your organizations need to be successful? The answers ranged from five to 30 per cent. And, while it is far from a reliable date source, my own experience would lead me to suggest that not more than seven to eight per cent are manageable in a high performance organization.

What is important is Herman Aguinis’s observation: “You need to create a system so you know what top performance means in the context of your business, how you measure it and identify who is achieving those levels.” Daniel Pink wrote the book “Free Agent Nation” back in 2001, and while top talent has always had a multitude of career options, even broader global options are now available.

Ian Hendry headshoptSo, back to the question, “Can you win if your employees aren’t superstars?”
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Ian Hendry is the president of the Strategic Capability Network. In his Morning Musings, he provides insight on issues facing today’s business leaders and looks at subject matter related to upcoming SCNetwork events. He is also VP HR & Administration at Interac Assocation.


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